Good systems have good user interfaces. They anticipate what we want to do, learn our preferences and foibles; protect us from mistakes. As devices get better at anticipating what we do, they gradually become a part of our personalities, as we get more and more accustomed to how they learn about us and come to reflect ourselves in them.
Picking up someone else’s smartphone feels like entering a strange world, where everything is familiar… but creepily wrong. It has learned all about someone else, whose preferences inevitably just feel doofy. I long to get back to my own device, which has the email icon in the right place, and knows what to do with copies of sent emails. It feels like coming home. Even though my laptop is slowing down and crashes every now and then, I resist reinstalling the image, even though I know that make everything faster and more stable. I hate the idea of having to teach it all about me again; what pictures I like on the desktop, what web sites I go to. All the things I do without thinking, I would have to think about again.
Sometimes this familiarity absolutely scares the bejeebers out of me.
Not because I am afraid that my laptop will learn too much about me, or become sentient and try to take my place. The stupid thing goes into a total panic if I change printers without telling it. I don’t feel threatened. But I am scared that I will come to depend on it knowing me so well that I will do something stupid. For every email address that auto-completes, every password that my browser remembers for me, I feel myself getting a little more dependent and looser. I let my system take care of the small things so that I can think of bigger stuff (I tell myself). But what if the little things aren’t so little anymore?
I got to thinking about how UIs are evolving when I read about new cars coming on the market that can park themselves. Letting a car steer itself into a space will take some getting used to, but I can see how this could be considered a little thing. Engineers are also experimenting with cars that will drive themselves, or at least steer themselves on the highway. That seems like a bit of a bigger deal, but I could get used to that. I could make jokes about Blue Screens of Death, or how unreliable software is, but that doesn’t really concern me. I am more worried about me.
Once I get used to my car steering itself, I expect cars to do that. That will be the new normal for how cars work, just like I expect browsers to know that when I type “nyt” I actually mean http//:www.nytimes.com. When I use another system that doesn’t do that, I have a small “what the…?” moment until I remember that I am not “home” and adjust.
But once I get used to my car steering on the highway, someday I know that I will get in a rental car, and it won’t be so smart. This new normal will lead to disaster, when it becomes too normal. My car already decides when to turn on the headlights, how to keep the inside temperature at 19 C, when it’s raining enough to turn on the wipers, and when it wants to go to the garage. I have come to expect that cars have central door locking. That can lead to an unpleasant surprise with some rentals, but nothing as bad as assuming that my car will keep me from bashing into the car ahead of me.
It’s great that these things are looking out for me, but I hope that I still remember to look out.
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